NAEP and Other Standardized Tests Have Been Weaponized.

This a break in my series on positive leadership in order to respond to a recent post on our colleague @StevenSinger3’s outstanding  blog. Gadfly on the Wall.

The reaction of public-school educators to the results of standardized tests, whether state-based or national is very much like the reaction to more lessons and tests in their classrooms on the part of struggling students. When one feels victimized by something, having an aversion to it is a natural thing.

The genesis of high-stakes testing is irrelevant when public school educators feel beaten down by such exams and by the blame that is so often attached. In essence, standardized tests have been weaponized and are used to attack the very existence, not to mention credibility, of public-school teachers and administrators, and the public schools in which they teach. It should not be surprising that these educators go on the defensive at the mere mention of high stakes testing.

This is no different than a student who fails lesson after lesson with such repetition that they feel hopeless. By the time they reach middle school, struggling students have given up on learning. Some of them have given up and stopped trying by the time they reach the middle elementary grades three, four, or five. While the  demographics of these children cover the full spectrum of American society, a disproportionate percentage of them are poor, have skins that are varying shades of brown, or live in households where English is not their mother tongue.

It is no different than a person or a dog that has been beaten by a cane. After a while, they begin to react, viscerally, to the very sight of the cane. Objectively speaking, there is nothing wrong with the cane other than it is being utilized in a manner other than its intended purpose. If the child’s parent or grandparent, or a pet’s owner, picks up the cane and uses it to help themselves walk across the room it is serving its true purpose and is inherently good. The child or pet that has been beaten by that same cane will shy away from it, nevertheless.

The problem in public education is not high stakes testing rather it is that they are being utilized as a weapon to attack public education as a whole, and teachers and their schools, more specifically.

Neither is there anything inherently evil about the results of such exams other than the fact that they are being used for reasons other than their purpose. Because they trigger a negative emotional response, educators have discounted the value of what we can learn from them. It is probably more accurate to say that educators have rejected the value of the results, altogether.

This is unfortunate because those results validate what we learn by examining the gradebooks of public-school teachers. The results confirm what our military services are dealing with when a significant percentage of our nation’s young men and women are unable to score well enough on the ASVAB[1] to qualify for enlistment. They correlate with the experiences of employers who want to hire these young men and women but find them unqualified. The results of all these assessments corroborate the reality that the men and women who populate our prisons were, at one time, our struggling students.

Having been one of those employers I can attest to the frustration when so many candidates for vacant positions lack basic math and reading skills essential to the jobs they would be asked to perform; even entry-level production or warehouse positions. For a brief period, before a change in our ownership, we provided basic math and reading skills instruction for these candidates. Even then, the results were disillusioning. Many struggled and some quit. My interpretation, then, was that they felt traumatized by the classroom.

I saw this while subbing, particularly in middle school classrooms, when students appear to be afraid to try. This triggered recollections from my years as a juvenile probation officer when my probationers seemed afraid when encouraged to talk about school experiences.

I challenge public school teachers to imagine how kids feel when, week after week, lesson after lesson, they  perform poorly on practice assignments and fail both quizzes and chapter tests. Imagine how you would feel if the evaluations from your principals were negative, time after time. After a while, being instructed to “work harder” is as demeaning as it is unhelpful.

I know teachers agonize over these kids and I know they do the best they can in the environment in which they are asked to work. I tell myself that these teachers, whom I have come to respect, must know in their hearts that something is not working; that, somehow, the process is flawed.

High stakes testing has become a pivotal issue for educators on both sides of the debate on the future of public education in America. It is worth looking at the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) testing because the results confirm that what is happening in our schools is not confined to a few unfortunate communities or school districts but occurs nation-wide. What is important about NAEP assessments is the way they define the “Proficient” level of performance.

The vital component of that definition is that it attempts to measure the ability of these youngsters to utilize what they were expected to learn in real life situations. Ultimately, this is the only measure that counts. I have no illusions that the instruments of assessment are perfect. Yes, they are culturally biased; yes, multiple choice questions are limited in their utility even though we have been using them in our classrooms for generations; but, it seems that the results are the same however we measure them. Even the chapter tests that are given in almost all classrooms, routinely, bring us to the same conclusion.

It does not matter what teachers and other educators think their students have learned; and neither do graduation rates matter. Similarly, the piece of paper with which graduates walk away that says they have completed a portion of their formal education is meaningless if they cannot apply useful skills and knowledge in real life.

Whether young people can apply what they were expected to have learned when they go out into the world and strive to make a life for themselves is the essential question and the basis on which the performance of our education process must be measured. And let us make it perfectly clear that it is the efficacy of the education process that all forms of assessment measure, not the effectiveness of public school teachers, public schools, or public education as a whole.

No matter how hard they work, how qualified they may be, nor how dedicated public-school educators may be, they cannot make an obsolete education process give us outcomes it is poorly designed and structured to produce.

My message to public school teachers is that I am not here to blame you. You are my heroes. I have subbed in classrooms that have shown me the challenges you face, daily. I have experienced what it is like to strive to teach in a classroom where the distractions of student behavior make it seem impossible. I have felt the dread of walking into a classroom every day, after having to gird myself for the challenges I was certain to face. I have at least sampled the frustration of professional men and women who are unable to do what they were trained to do; who are unable to experience the satisfaction of helping kids learn and grow—the very reason why they chose to become a teacher in the first place.

Teachers and principals: you are not to blame. I do not question your commitment or professionalism. I do not dispute how hard you work or how valiantly you strive to give your students what they need to learn. The education process that has been at work in our schools for as long as any of us can remember does not work for a significant percentage of our students, and it does not work for teachers. I would assert, also, that it does an injustice to even the students who appear to be performing well because it inhibits their ability to achieve at their full potential.

Both teachers and their students deserve better.

The challenge is, we cannot create better outcomes until we analyze what contributes to the struggles of our students and are willing to let go of the traditional methods and approaches with which we have grown comfortable. For most of you, it is the only way you have ever known.

Our students are not struggling because of bad teachers and bad schools. Neither are they struggling because they are poor, because of the color of their skin, because of the language of their birth, or because they are genetically incapable of learning.

I want to convince you that poverty is as much a consequence of inequality in education as it is a cause of that inequality.

I want you to understand that we will never get better outcomes for your students—our nation’s most valuable assets—until we go back to the drawing board. We will not get better outcomes until:

  • We assess the level of academic preparedness of each student when they arrive at our door for their first day of school.
  • We tailor what we do to meet the unique needs of each student;
  • We create an environment in which they can form enduring relationships with teachers who will provide the constant emotional, physical, and academic support they require;
  • We ensure that every child has at least one teacher with whom he or she can bond, even the kids who are hardest to love,
  • We discontinue the practice of severing relationships between students and a teacher on whom they have come to rely;
  • We stop treating education as a competition in which some kids win, and others lose;
  • We stop pushing kids ahead to “next lessons’ before they are ready—before they have mastered and understand their previous lesson in each subject area;
  • We stop asking students who “get it” to sit by patiently until their classmates catch up;
  • We stop marching to the tune of arbitrary schedules and time frames;
  • We stop measuring the performance of students against the performance of their classmates;
  • we free teachers from the unnecessary distractions that prevent them from giving each child the time and attention they need to feel safe, to feel special, and to learn at their own unique pace;
  • We give teachers the freedom to utilize whatever approaches, methodologies, media, or technology that will help a given student learn;
  • We recognize that our students are not all preparing for the same destinations and aspirations and that no one destination is more important than others;
  • We allow our students to discover the best versions of themselves and chart out their own goals and ambitions;
  • We ensure that every child learns that success is a process of learning from our outcomes and experiences, both successful and unsuccessful, and that it is a process each of them can master;
  • Until together and with enthusiasm, we have celebrated all their successes along the pathway to whatever destiny they have chosen for themselves;
  • They have developed the powerful self-esteem they will need to face the unprecedented challenges in the balance of this 21st Century; and,
  • They have sufficient strength of character and the tools to withstand the slings and arrows of prejudice and discrimination with which so many of them will be subjected.

Answer the following question for your own benefit, not for mine:

“Is the education process in which you are asked to teach structured to provide students with each of these essential components?”

My purpose as an advocate for an education model designed to provide all these things, is to recruit you to rally around a positive idea that can transform public education in America.

I am an advocate for public education in community schools that are accountable to the residents of those communities. I am an advocate for teachers, whom I consider to be unsung heroes who have one of the most important jobs in all of society.  

I encourage you to ask yourself: “What if there is another way to teach our nation’s children?” What if there is a way that gives all children, not just a lucky few, the quality education they deserve while giving teachers the career you dreamt of when you chose the field of education?

What if there is a way to ensure that you will make a difference, every day, without the distractions and complications that have led so many of your colleagues to leave teaching?

Why not sneak a peek at a new education model, The Hawkins Model©; a new way to teach your students? What do you have to lose?

Remember that it is a quality education on which the future of our nation’s children depends, and it is on those same children that the future of our nation depends.


[1] Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, the instrument used by the Armed Services to determine eligibility for enlistment.

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